Teo Yang Seizes The Moment
The Designer is Determined to Make the Most of His Time — and Yours.
The vertical expansion and openness through the stairs were added to the space.
(Photo courtesy of Teoyang Studio)
Teo Yang is a busy man. Since BODW last caught up with the designer during Business of Design Week 2018, he and his studio team have designed two national museums in his native South Korea, launched both a furniture brand and a skin care line, and collaborated on everything from a custom de Gournay wallpaper to Fendi bags. And that’s not counting the many residential and corporate projects that seem to flow through the studio at a steady, almost-but-not-quite-too intense pace.
The only thing he hasn’t done a lot of is travel. Though he peppers conversation about the last two years with bits of movement (“I did go to Art Basel in Miami” and “I had to go to Venice for some shows”) the pandemic has kept him mostly at home in Seoul. Home for Yang is famously a combination of living space, office space, and design project in and of itself. He lives and works out of a historic house in Bukchon, a neighborhood with a cluster of traditional hanok homes in northern Seoul that has been featured everywhere from Wallpaper to Architectural Digest. Asked if being there almost all the time lately has changed his relationship with the space or even made him bored of it, he says, “No, I fell in love with it even more. It’s just a peaceful sanctuary for me to rejuvenate and be away from all the hassle outside.”
But peace and sanctuary mean different things to different people, and Yang says that his personal rejuvenation means, in part, work. “I’ve been remodeling the house, actually.” He tells BODW, “I did a new media room, and I redesigned the kitchen and the restroom, and I’ve been collecting more art pieces.”
He has also been hard at work on an entirely different kind of office space, one that he calls his first real office project: GS Energy’s massive corporate HQ in Seoul. When he and his team were first showed the space, he described it as a sort of quintessential heads down work environment. “When we first got to this project, we knew it was almost like an old type of factory-style workplace, where you see hundreds and hundreds of desks and maybe one coffee machine and all employees need to do is concentrate.”
Design that begins with the brain
To inject new energy (no pun intended), he and his team started thinking about how the space could work for the people inside it, not the other way around. “You know, it was my first office space, so there had to be a lot of research done beforehand. I had to learn about how the brain functions. How do people concentrate? How do people generate solutions? It was such a fun project to learn about. We actually started with neuroscience.”
To come up with great ideas, Yang found, workers need to go through at least three stages of thinking. “In order for people to find a great solution and be creative, you need to concentrate by yourself. Then after concentrating you need to discuss. And then you need alone time, more of a resting period in order to digest all of that.”
Yang said he found that individual focus should take up about 60% of work time, and the other 40% should be a mix of mingling and resting. Before the redesign, GS Energy’s space had mostly been geared only toward individual concentration on a task. Set desks and the disconnected layout, with separate floors connected mainly by elevator, meant informal discussions, especially between people of different departments or places in the corporate hierarchies, weren’t happening as organically as they could be.
“So, on the main three floors that we were working on, we created a gathering ground right in the middle.” People from the executive offices walk downstairs to mingle in the open kitchen and lounge space with people who come up from the first, more junior floor. It makes for a communal area where Yang says they can not only grab a coffee from the newly installed robot barista, but also “collaborate and find a future for this company” together.
Office Workers as Movie Stars
Connecting all three floors is a dramatic, open staircase, which encourages movement and the creativity that comes with it. “Just by moving a little bit, even for a few seconds, the brain sort of will refresh itself and go to more of a healthier place where it can receive information in a better state,” Yang says. The staircase has become so popular that even though there are still elevators, employees told Yang they have much more fun going up and down the staircase. They say it’s “almost like a movie set” in the middle of the office.
The team also did away with set desks, creating an open system of first-come-first served seating for employees and their laptops, and they changed the desk design itself, eschewing rowed seating for a series of beehive shapes, “So that while you’re working you can just turn, and you can instantly have a meeting within that group.”
For rest time, the studio knocked down framing and unnecessary barriers that were blocking window space. Now, walls of wide glass not only bring in natural light, but also allow employees lost in thought to gaze out on the city and people the company is serving. It also brings the rare inspiration of nature into an otherwise thoroughly urban space. “Korea has four different seasons and even during the construction, there was lots of snow falling. It was just so beautiful to see. You just don’t get to see that very often, especially not on the 38th and 37th floor.”
Nature also makes its way into the space through the natural wood palette and materials chosen specifically for sustainability. “We worked with recycled materials, low carbon footprint, and materials that have been sourced locally so that it doesn’t have to travel from a far distance. For instance, we chose a cement tile that looks like marble that is actually created with recycled material, all sourced and made in Korea.” That “marble,” which can be seen throughout the staircase and kitchen area, can be customized in a variety of shapes and colors, and has the added advantage of a shortened lead time over less bespoke alternatives from overseas.
Change is Always a Challenge
Not all these changes have been embraced overnight. The sustainability measures and beauty of the space have been very well received, Yang says, but changing to a more fluid desk system and knocking down walls can be an adjustment for some. After the project was completed earlier this year, Yang was invited to come back to the office and found that, “Some people are still not used to not having his or her own desk, and there are some issues adjusting. But,” he says, “They’re having fun at the moment. They are much more relaxed, and they’ve been exercising more as they use the center staircase. Their performance has gone up. They’re having more meetings and conversations about the future of GS Energy. They do feel that the space will be a great platform for the next chapter of the company.”
As for Yang’s next chapter, he is very much focused on the present right now. He has spent so much of his time researching the past — and in some ways, literally living in it — and thinking about the future, that he can see time starting to bend back on itself in both design and work. He has dream projects in mind of course (working on a yacht would be nice), and would like to continue to put all his newfound workplace expertise to good use, but most of all he wants to get all his most current ideas out into the world while they are still current. “Especially in Korea, things change so fast, and people celebrate change and innovation. I do feel an urgency to say the messages I want to say with my spaces before it’s too late.”
And so, he is at work on a line of perfumes, his studio is consulting on a five star hotel, there is a residence in LA that he is trying to finish up after two years of hard work, and many other projects ongoing or in the pipeline. He is urgently trying to get his work out into the world now. And he is keeping busy.